Now it is official: The Gaza Strip is "abroad." As of February 1, the few Israelis whose entry into the Strip is approved by the army have had to present a passport at the Erez crossing, and they are listed on the Interior Ministry's computer as having crossed the country's borders.
The Gaza Strip is "abroad" in a strange way. Israelis need a passport to get there, and Palestinian Jerusalemites need a laissez passer - the same one they need to present when they fly to Paris via Ben-Gurion International Airport. But when these same Jerusalemites go to Jordan via the Allenby Bridge, they use a Jordanian passport. And the Palestinians who live in that "abroad" - the Gazans - are, for the meantime, exempt from crossing with a Palestinian passport; this exemption also applies to residents of the West Bank, by order of the interior minister.
The confusing multiplicity of procedures is still more remarkable in light of the fact that Israel allows only a few people to enter and leave the Strip. Only a small number of Israelis receive this permission - mainly those with relatives in Gaza or people, primarily women, who have been married to Gaza residents for years. Receiving a permit requires prior coordination, which is very cumbersome, and it sometimes takes days until the request for a permit or a permit extension finds a fax line without a busy signal at the "office for Israeli affairs" in the Civil Administration, a military body to which the interior minister has granted the authority to continue operating the crossing.
Crossing the approximately half a kilometer that separates the Palestinian side from the Israeli one requires additional coordination, on the phone, and an hours-long wait until the soldiers and clerks on the Israeli side allow permit holders to walk through. But this is not what makes the strangeness of the Gazan "abroad" unique; to many, this is simply reminiscent of the difficulties that totalitarian regimes imposed on travel between countries in Eastern Europe.
The "abroad" of Gaza is strange primarily for a different reason, a more fundamental one: All its residents are listed in the same population registry as residents of the West Bank, which is not "abroad," and the entire list is controlled by Israel's Interior Ministry. This control gives Interior Ministry representatives in the Civil Administration authority that the Palestinian interior minister lacks. This control allowed Israel to deprive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of their residency status after 1967. It allowed the continuation of marital, social, economic, religious and cultural ties between Gaza and the West Bank until 1991 - and then, it severed those ties. This control allows Israel to prevent the addition of foreign residents to the population registry; it allows Israel to intervene in, and even decide, the choice of a partner, place of study, type of medical treatment, address, quality time with children, participation in celebrations and funerals, the writing of wills and distribution of family property. Israel has the authority to ban the entry of friends or family members who are not Palestinian residents - not just their entry into Israel, but also into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since October 2000, the ban has been comprehensive.
Only Palestinians registered as residents in the Israeli computer system can cross at the Rafah terminal, when it is open. Israel has the authority to ban Gazans from traveling to the West Bank or living there, and has been doing so with increasing fervor since 1991, when it began implementing the closure policy. This is the "abroad" that Israelis require a passport to enter. This is the "abroad" for which Israel argues that it has no responsibility. And this is the greatness of the Israeli occupation: It manages to present itself as nonexistent, while its authority reaches all the way to the bedroom.
No, this is not a recommendation to take another unilateral step and erase the Gazans from the Palestinian population registry, which is under Israeli control, in addition to the geographic and human separation. On the contrary! It is preferable for Israel to continue snooping around in their bedrooms than to take a step that would finally complete the separation between Gaza residents and their brothers in the West Bank.
There is reason for concern. A move such as erasing the Gazans from the registry fits the thought process that has characterized Israeli policy toward the Strip since 1991. Over the past 16 years, residents of the crowded, 360-square-kilometer Strip have been ordered to get used to its transformation into a kind of isolated autarkic economy and make do with the little it produces: increasingly little (and increasingly polluted) water; diminishing land; declining sources of income; industry and agriculture with no markets; and inferior educational and health institutions, due to their isolation from the world and the West Bank.
The peak of this policy, so far, was the disengagement in 2005. This is a policy that contradicts what is written in the Oslo Accords, which call the Strip and the West Bank a single territorial unit, as well as international resolutions about the solution for peace. But evacuating a few thousand settlers from the Strip was successfully marketed as Israeli moderation, even as Israel strengthened all its methods of control over the West Bank. Israel is also liable to market the deletion of Gazan names from the population registry as some kind of goodwill gesture. But such a move would only intensify the human distress of Gaza's 1.4 million residents, as well as their separation from the world. And that is a proven recipe for keeping a reasonable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians at a distance.
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